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A last electoral hurdle for Obama

A Web-driven challenge to his legitimacy targets members of the Electoral College.

By Staff Writer / November 26, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama spoke in Kailua, Hawaii, in August. Some are lobbying for the Electoral College to take one last look at Mr. Obama's citizenship, claiming he was born in Kenya, not Hawaii.

Alex Brandon/AP/FILE


Raleigh, N.C.

Barack Obama has one election still to win before he moves into the White House, and by all accounts he’s a shoo-in. The Electoral College – that curious body created by the Founders to put one extra check on the popular vote – meets Dec. 15 to elect the president.

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But across the US, a small band of Americans convinced that Mr. Obama is not a natural-born citizen, as the Constitution requires of presidents, are lobbying Democratic electors to take one last look at the notion that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii.

The idea that Democratic electors would deny Obama the presidency strains the bounds of credulity. But the lobbying campaign points to the endurance of conspiracy theories pertaining to US presidents – and revives longstanding questions about the Electoral College itself.

“This does point out the frailty of the Electoral College system,” says Michael Mezey, an expert on the election process at DePaul University in Chicago. “The fact that in most states electors could make the decision to vote for somebody else ... is a real vulnerability in the process. [Many Americans], in fact, tend to be amazed that these electors are real people.”

Here in North Carolina, the secretary of state’s office has fielded about 50 requests for names and contact numbers of electors – all public information. The last time so many people sought to contact electors was in 2000, amid a bid to urge electors to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, who had won the popular vote.

“Most of the world thinks this is settled except for a few conspiracy theorists,” says North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. “In the 2000 election ... Republican electors felt under siege, and I expect the Democrat electors may end up feeling the same way [this time].”

Wayne Abraham, a Democratic elector in Greensboro, N.C., says he’s received three letters – two signed, one not – and one phone call about Obama’s citizenship.

“I was surprised, but I’m not worried about it,” he says, dryly. “As I said to the lady on the phone, I figured that the Bush administration had ample opportunity to investigate Senator Obama, and if they had discovered he was not truly a citizen they ... would have let us know.”

A birth certificate from Hawaii

Many news organizations have debunked claims that Obama was born in Kenya to his 19-year-old American mother and his father, a Kenyan. The Obama campaign released a certificate of live birth from Hawaii in June, which would seem to have put the issue to rest. Critics, though, contend the document is a fake.

“It’s true that, if it’s not a totally impossible twist on actual facts that he’d been born in Kenya, [the Electoral vote] actually would have been quite tricky because of the statutory regime,” says Peter Spiro, an immigration law expert at Temple University in Philadelphia. “But it’s really a nonstarter because Obama was born in Hawaii.”